Coding in Paradise

About Brad Neuberg

The Start of Coworking
(from the Guy that Started It)

I've seen a number of inaccuracies in news stories and on the Wikipedia page for coworking, and I wanted to write up a short article on the beginning of coworking to correct these.

Two coworkers from the first coworking space

Did I invent coworking and how did it start?

Yes I invented coworking.

In 2005 I was working at a startup named Rojo and was unhappy with my job. Before that I had worked for myself doing consulting and traveling and hungered for the community a job can provide (more about what I was working on at Rojo I was working on one of the first web based RSS news readers, while before while traveling I lived in Thailand and was working on an open source P2P web browser and web stack named Paper Airplane). At that point I was confused because I had both worked for myself and worked at a job and was unhappy because I couldn't seem to combine all the things I wanted at the same time: the freedom and independence of working for myself along with the structure and community of working with others.

I started working with a Life Coach named Audrey Seymour while at Rojo to help me get unstuck and figure out where I wanted to go in my life (more details on Life Coaching Audrey and I actually worked on the phone for nearly a year and never met in person! Life Coaching was enormously helpful to me; Audrey had me imagine what my perfect day and then perfect year would look like, and then figure out the steps to make those real).

I came up with a three part plan: first, I would work on commercial open-source projects in order to provide money for me to work on one of my passions, which was open source; two, I would write articles for publications like O'Reilly on these open-source projects in order to raise awareness and focus on one of my other passions, writing and communicating; and finally, I decided to create a new kind of space to support the community and structure that I hungered for and gave it a new name: coworking.

Did Bernie De Koven have anything to do with the coworking name as applied to the coworking movement?

No. This is actually a major error on the Wikipedia page. When I coined the term coworking I did that independently of other terms. About a year and a half later while looking for a domain name for coworking for the coworking wiki I stumbled on that was owned by Bernie De Koven. He knew nothing about the collaborative workspaces we were involved in. He had started an institute called the Coworking Institute that looked like it was trying to increase awareness of collaborative work techniques and technologies. Bernie and I briefly connected on the phone at that time and laughed about the fact that we had both chosen coworking to refer to the different things we were pursuing. We chose the same word to refer to different things that we were doing but in no way were our initiatives connected. Bernie's a great guy who's done interesting work but was unconnected with the rise of the coworking space movement.

What was the first coworking space?

The first coworking space was the San Francisco Coworking Space at Spiral Muse (not the Hat Factory as has been misprinted sometimes). I had several friends involved in the Spiral Muse space, which was a feminist collective in the Mission district in San Francisco. I was talking to Elana Auerbach, who was involved in Spiral Muse, while we were hanging out and mentioned my coworking idea and that I needed affordable space. Elana said that I could have the Spiral Muse space two days a week for $300 a month, with any extra money that I might make from participants above and beyond $300. The one thing though was that I would have to set up the space each of those days and then break everything down as I couldn't leave any permanent additions. As a sidenote, I was pretty broke during this period and it was my dad who actually helped give me the $300 a month for several months to help pay for the space, which I'm really appreciative of.

The Spiral Muse feminist collective where the first coworking space was located

What were the first few months like at the first coworking space?

I naïvely thought that I would post on Craigslist and I would have a flood of people at the space. In fact no one came for the first month and I would go and set up the folding card tables and so on on Mondays and Tuesdays at the space patiently waiting for people but no one came. I realized then that I had to do more outreach and I started handing out flyers and cards and going to coffee shops and talking to people about the idea.

Slowly a trickle of more and more people came into the space. The official first coworker was Ray Baxter, an athlete, startup developer, and father who came to the space and was the first official coworker.

What helped coworking grow?

There were three important developments in the growth of coworking. The first, was that a lot of people came to the space just to look at it and see what was going on with coworking but were not able to actually join the space. I would tell them "take this idea, steal it, and make it your own"; basically I was giving people permission to take coworking and remix it, just like the open-source roots I came from.

Second, Chris Messina and Tara Hunt really helped create a great online community using the coworking wiki and a Google Google groups list and evangelized it to the growing Bar Camp unconferences. They were also instrumental in the creation of the Hat Factory (discussed below) and later Citizen Space.

Finally after about a year the Spiral Muse coworking space closed and several months later a second space opened up with myself working with about ten other volunteers including Chris and Tara for a larger space that could accommodate more people, called the Hat Factory. The Hat Factory was actually run out of a work/live loft and was the second coworking space.

Early video on coworking with Chris, Tara, and I, made by Hat Factory co-founders Jay Dedman and Ryanne Hodson

What were some historical antecedents to coworking?

In 2003 I started an earlier group called a Nine to Five Group and advertised on Craigslist. This was a group that would meet at coffee shops and casually work together. It was not a success and I stopped doing it after about a month.

There were other proto-ideas that had a coworking like aspect before such as artist colonies, journalist newsrooms, and rent-a-office spaces, but none of them had the open community aspect of coworking.

I vaguely remember as a kid reading an interview with Arthur C. Clarke from the 1970s (perhaps in Whole Earth Review?) where he described in the future there would be telecommuting centers at libraries so that those who were working remotely would have community. I'm not sure if I've actually invented this memory because I've had a lot of trouble tracking down the interview, but I vaguely remember reading that as a kid that once telecommuting became widespread it would lead to problems of community that was definitely an inspiration.

About two years in while doing the Hat Factory space, as a group we all discovered that there had been an earlier effort by Neil Goldberg to provide high-end collaborative spaces for .com workers who were telecommuting in Silicon Valley called the Gate-3 Work Club. This was a strictly commercial effort that unfortunately didn't work out with the .com crash, but it was an interesting historical footnote to discover after we had started coworking.

Now go and update inaccuracies you might see in places like the Wikipedia coworking page :)

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